Garbarek and the Hilliard in Gloucester Cathedral

Tonight we saw Norwegian jazz saxophonist Jan Garbarek with the Hilliard Ensemble in Gloucester Cathedral: an inspiring concert featuring a selection of material from the Garbarek/Hilliard Ensemble recordings Officium (1994) and Mnemosyne (1999), plus material their forthcoming ECM release. In the resonant acoustic of the 900-year old cathedral, the mix of  the medieval purity of the Hilliard voices with Garbarek’s soaring saxophone was awe-inspiring.

We had visited the cathedral in the late afternoon, and found the stage being set for the evening’s concert. Four music stands for the Hilliards and a seat for Garbarek.

We had time to explore this magnificent building, which originated in 678 with the foundation of an abbey. The cathedral itself was built as the abbey church, starting in 1072, and consists of a Norman core, with additions in every style of Gothic architecture.

The highlight of the building must be the beautiful and serene monastery cloisters, the earliest surviving example of English fan vaulting, a decorative style unique to England.  The cloisters were designed and built between 1351 and 1377.

As we made our way into the cathedral for the concert, the Cotswold stone glowed golden in the early evening sunshine.

Four voices and a saxophone, completely unamplified. Haunting, ethereal and utterly spellbinding. At the start of the concert, the musicians entered from various points around the cathedral, making their way to the small platform at the centre of the nave, singing and playing as the walked.

Later in the concert, there was another promenade piece, with the musicians exploiting the cathedral acoustics and layout, utilising the nave, both aisles and the screened off quire. There had been a request for no applause during the performance, and this created an almost seamless single piece and an atmosphere that was both peaceful and uplifting.

‘A lot of my work involves performers from different cultures, and I consider this collaboration with the Hilliard Ensemble comes from a different culture, if not geographically, then certainly in the sense of time. In our best moments I think that we managed to give something new, something unheard of before. Something came into existence that was not there before.’
– Jan Garbarek, programme notes

When The Hilliard Ensemble and Jan Garbarek gathered at the monastery of St Gerold in the Austrian mountains they could not have known where that time-defying experiment, inspired by the Officium Defunctorum of Morales would  lead, and did  not suspect that it would strike such a resonant chord with the public at large. And although the project had seemed, at least on  paper, predestined to outrage the proprieties of two sets of purists – the custodians of early
music ‘authenticity’ and defenders of the jazz tradition – the recording was almost unanimously hailed  by the press as an artistic triumph. ‘Sobering and soaring’, the Intemational Herald Tribune called it.

‘At its most magical,’ said the New York Observer, Garbarek’s soprano insinuates itself almost imperceptibly into the top line of countertenor David James, collapsing all barriers between “jazz” and “classical”, the sacred and the profane, antiquity and  now.’

The Guardian: ‘Garbarek’s purity of intonation, and the sensitivity with which he spikes it with atonality have rarely been better captured on disc and, far from being a deliberate exercise in musical exotica, this often sounds like the setting that was just waiting to find  him.’

There was, and remains, something very right about this combination, the depth and clarity of medieval polyphony in particular providing a context that rules out a mannered response from the freely-moving ‘fifth voice’ that is Garbarek’s saxophone. The Norwegian player’s improvising with the Hilliard singers is amongst his most essential and concentrated work: every tone is made to count. Over the last ten years, Garbarek and The Hilliard Ensemble have given hundreds of concerts together in the concert halls and, especially, churches of the world, and the music has changed with the repertoire. Many new pieces have been added, most recently influences from Eastern Europe, and the freedoms that Garbarek habitually takes with the music have emboldened the Hilliard singers also to take more chances, both in selection of material and its treatment.

The Hilliard Ensemble are: David James counter-tenor, Rogers Covey-Crump tenor, Steven Harrold tenor, and Gordon Jones baritone.

(from the programme notes)

We left, satisfied and inspired, as the  late evening sun illuminated the cathedral tower.

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